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Thursday 4 February 2010

Reefer Madness (1936)

Director: Louis Gasnier
Stars: Dorothy Short and Kenneth Craig
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

Somehow I've managed to avoid seeing Reefer Madness up until now, even though I probably own half a dozen copies of it in various public domain box sets and I have seen a number of its peers. It's an important film, generally seen as the benchmark of the educational exploitation films of the thirties and forties, the standard by which they're judged. Unfortunately it's somehow neither particularly good or bad and so has attained its lofty and legendary status through a salacious history and a particularly delicious form of irony. Financed as a cautionary tale by a small church group, it is most popular with the very people it warned against, thus it amazingly achieved the precise opposite of what it aimed at and continues to do so over seventy years after its initial release. Beyond that irony, it apparently improves in quality the more stoned you are. To be truly entertained you need to be so high that it becomes topical humour.

Originally titled Tell Your Children in 1936, it was bought by the notorious Dwain Esper, who had already directed fims like Narcotic, Maniac and Marihuana, recut and redistributed it under its newer more salacious title. Other releases saw it retitled Dope Addict, Doped Youth, The Burning Question and bizarrely, Love Madness. Soon, its potential apparently extinguished, it languished forgotten and drifted into the public domain. Then in 1971, Keith Stroup, who had founded NORML, the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, discovered the film in the archives of the Library of Congress, bought a print of it and began showing it at pro-pot rallies and at college campuses across the country. Its success was immediate, as every college student in the US in the seventies was stoned all the time. I know that because I saw That '70s Show.

Unfortunately because I'm not stoned, and in fact have never smoked anything in my entire life, legal or otherwise, I can only miss out on a large part of the hilarity that Reefer Madness has brought to millions of college students and other lowlife ne'erdowells. It becomes merely another bad movie, but perhaps the message that screams out at me loudest is that I should start smoking this stuff just so I can keep up with this film. Everything happens so quickly that I can hardly keep up with the constant introduction of new characters and maintain my judgement of who I'm actually supposed to be watching, let alone all the sensational headlines spattered at the screen like a hail of machine gun bullets. If only I'd got high on marihuana first, time could have slowed down and this could have morphed into a ten hour David Lean epic, merely one as funny as anything Mel Brooks could have conjured up.

It can hardly come as a surprise that the first words spoken are 'Must be stopped!' We're at a PTA meeting that aims pretty high, to lay the foundation for a nationwide campaign to demand compulsory education, because it's only through enlightment that this scourge can be wiped out. What scourge could that be? Well let's sit back and listen to Dr Alfred Carroll read us a letter from an anonymous member of the Narcotics Bureau who explains that we can ignore all those other soul-destroying drugs like opium, morphine and heroin, because we need to focus on the most vicious, the most deadly drug of them all. No, not crack! We're talking about marihuana, that evil weed that with one single puff can turn innocent all-American children into cackling, twitching, murderous sex fiends. Rape! Murder! Driving over 40 mph! The shame of it!
Carroll is the principal of Lakeside High School, which is a strange place because kids seem to stay there until their mid twenties and they dress in tweed suits with bow ties. It would be a wonderful place, where these children can happily play tennis in peace, but there's a sinister gang working hard to hook them all on marihuana and make them miss the ball by three or four feet. I bring this up because apparently it's important enough to be used as evidence in a murder trial. No, I'm not kidding. The story of this gang and some of the children they entice into their evil clutches is told in an hour long flashback that will truly open your eyes. And yours. And yours.

The gang seems to be comprised of a boss we don't see, a male secretary who lives in a room furnished only by a desk and a network of enticing young ladies and gentlemen who befriend people and invite them to their apartments to party on down with some marihuana cigarettes. One such is the apartment of Mae Coleman and Jack Perry, who are apparently depraved enough to flagrantly live in sin yet obey the edicts of the Hays Office and so sleep in separate beds. Mae is a shameless hussy, a temptress, a woman who dares to dress herself in her own bedroom for us to watch, but she does have a heart, upset that her boyfriend wants to sell drugs to schoolkids instead of just consenting adults. Jack is like the supporting characters Humphrey Bogart got landed with around this time at Warner Brothers before they worked out what he could do, but Carleton Young doesn't have a hint of his charisma. They also have a couple of resident dealers, Ralph Wiley and Blanche, who just isn't worthy enough of a last name, apparently.

Jack is the real fiend of the piece because this is 1936 and under the Hays Code women had to be kept in the kitchen or at least be decently victimised. He manages to entice that nice Bill Harper boy who looks like Tony Slattery up to Mae's apartment so that our real cautionary tale can begin. You see, Bill has a girl, Mary Lane, a girl who's as gosh darn nice as he is, and Jack doesn't realise that they're both giddy enough already without needing to smoke some evil weed and they're already doomed to tragic deaths. We know this because in the token soppy scene at Mary's house, he shows her a copy of Romeo and Juliet and points out that when he studies it he kinda thinks of her. Apparently he's already set on a stormy relationship ended by the suicide of both of them, but hey, whatever rocks your boat. Maybe we should ban that Shakespeare guy too. Won't someone think of the children?

Jack also entices Jimmy, Mary's kid brother, up to Mae's and he can't resist the stuff either. It's so addictive, you see. We can't help but wonder about Jack, because he seems to be so good at finding ways to corrupt the youth of the day but remain so utterly lacking in common sense. When he gets Jimmy to drive him out to pick up more dope, he ensures that nobody could possibly think anything was up by having Jimmy stay in his car in the street, get stoned while he waits on one of Jack's reefers and then race off with the new shipment like he's Steve McQueen. 'Let's go, Jack. I'm red hot!' he cries and promptly scoots away, reaching a scarily excessive 45 mph. You just know there's going to be someone in the road for him to miss by three or four feet, I mean mow down in front of many witnesses. How do these idiot crooks stay in business?
In fact how do they do anything given that they smoke marihuana themselves? We're told in no uncertain terms how dangerous this stuff is from the start. Before we even meet Dr Carroll we get to read a long scrolling text that explains how marihuana is 'a violent narcotic, an unspeakable scourge, the real Public Enemy Number One!' It leads to 'monstrous extravagances', 'emotional disturbances', 'dangerous hallucinations'. It causes the 'total inability to direct thoughts', 'acts of shocking violence' and best fun of all, 'incurable insanity'. The FBI agent that Carroll goes to see reinforces this, telling a story of a sixteen year old marihuana addict who was locked up for taking part in a holdup, even though that seems like a strange charge given that he'd apparently also slaughtered his entire family with an axe.

Yet Jack seems to function just fine. Even Mae's resident pianist Hot Fingers Pirelli seems to function just fine though he even looks wasted when he isn't. When he hides in the closet to smoke a joint he turns into Harpo Marx doing a Jimmy Durante impression, but he can still make those 88 keys jump and jive. It's only the kids that can't take it, high school kids like Jimmy who knock down pedestrians at low speed, college kids like Ralph who tries to rape Mary when she turns up at Mae's looking for her brother, otherwise decent kids like Bill who are in the other room romping with Blanche only to stumble out and see his girlfriend being molested. In his marihuana stupor, Bill fights Ralph to protect Mary, Jack rushes in to knock him out with the butt end of a gun and the ensuing struggle leaves Mary dead, shot in the back. Jack wipes the gun clean and plants it on Bill so he thinks he did it. What a stinker!

You know what this means, of course: more newspaper headlines to detail the inevitable progression of the court case, because we just have to keep things sensational. One of the unintentional joys of this film that I can relish is the way these front pages were composed. One from the Herald-Tribune details 'Harper Verdict Expected Tonight', but I couldn't help but notice the story underneath it, which, I kid you not, reads, 'Dick Tracy, G-Man, in Sensational Raid.' Given that the headline looks like it's been obviously pasted onto a real paper, I wonder where they found the real paper, but this is where non-potheads like me get to find humour in a film like this, that and the utterly unintentional use of what seems like every slang reference for drugs in regular dialogue: joint, dope, crack, powder, you name it. I bet Mary's surname is really Jane not Lane.

A film like Tell Your Children was never going to be about the acting, but it's capable. Most of the cast and crew are real professionals, albeit names who would never be anything but minor. Perhaps the biggest name is Louis Gasnier, the director, who had made the definitive movie serial back in 1914, The Perils of Pauline. Kenneth Craig, who played Bill, never did anything else, but Dorothy Short, his girlfriend here, went on to a generic B movie career. She married Dave O'Brien the year this film was made, the actor who plays her would be rapist, Ralph, the one who looks like the Amazing Criswell. They divorced in 1954 but apparently for the banal reason that he spent too much time sailing not because they'd locked him up in an institution for perpetrating a bad caricature of Dwight Frye's Renfield, I mean for going completely looney tunes on marihuana. Don't forget that he's only one tragedy. The next tragedy may be that of your daughter. Or your son. Or yours. Or yours. Or YOURS!


  1. The most amazing thing about Reefer Madness for me is how trusting the gangsters are. Not a penny is ever exchanged onscreen for their drugs. Even ruthless Jack is rather too kindly for his own good. If he had the true killer instinct he would have quietly had Ralph and Blanche whacked before Bill's trial ever got rolling, but instead he puts up with him for days and days (with an inexhaustible supply of free joints, of course). Yes, he finally does try to kill Ralph, but veerry sloowwlly. Might as well give the paranoiac stoned guy with a fireplace poker a sporting chance.

    I have smoked both tobacco and marijuana in the past and they do not smell or taste the same. I very much doubt whether anyone could accidentally smoke a joint thinking it was an ordinary cigarette. But even so, what does that say? None of the kids who fall victim to the noxious weed would have been snared if they weren't already, from the look of it, two-pack-a-day smokers who thoughtlessly light up and puff away on any cigarette-shaped object that's handed to them.

    I must not be the only one who thinks that Dr. Carroll's demeanor throughout the movie is of a snarling dog about to sink its fangs into the nearest bystander. Lord, those teeth of his!

  2. No, you're not the only one.

    I got the feeling that the people who made the film didn't really know what a crook was. They just started with the worst thing imaginable, namely pot, and churned out their rhetoric around it.

    I hadn't noticed the money aspect, but it fits with the flagrant lack of consistency throughout. I love how this stuff is apparently so dangerous that one puff can turn anyone into a cackling, twitching, murderous sex fiend, yet all the crooks puff up a storm and never even hint at such adjectives.

    And of course, now that you've admitted to this most unholy of sins, I should attempt due diligence in my research on this film. Have you ever driven over 40mph? heh